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Refugees and peddling fear

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 27 October 2009

There may well be former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on vessels bringing asylum seekers to Australia. The LTTE were, after all, the fighting component of one side in a no-holds-barred civil war in Sri Lanka over the past 35 years.

It was a war in which terror was deployed by both sides, although there is something about state terror which is inherently more evil. I think it is the cold and calculating nature of state sponsored retribution which sees individuals disappear off busy streets and abducted from homes by people who are sworn to uphold the rule of law.

Wilson Tuckey has blown the dog whistle on LTTE terrorists arriving in Australia by boat. Wilson has reason to make a lot of noise: his parliamentary career has been less than a success, with his sacking by John Howard as a Minister a fair indication of his character and ability. He hasn’t many runs on the board and his electorate is sick of him. He is well aware that he can expect some stiff competition at the next election. But Wilson’s views count for little with the exception of the Canberra parliamentary media, who, mostly bored to death, enjoy a stir from a colourful character, Barnaby Joyce included.


Elements in the AFP might like to hear Wilson in action on LTTE terrorists; they may have geed him up. But other intelligence agencies are more sanguine and circumspect in their analysis of the threat posed by former members of the LTTE stepping onto Australian soil. What does Wilson think they will do if granted the right to live in Australia? Blow up the local post office, police station or shock horror, a pub?

It should not come as a surprise to learn that there are former members of the LTTE living in Australia and that they are now engaged in professional occupations and are raising successful children. It should also come as no surprise that there are Sinhalese living in Australia who were involved with military and security organisations, their sole aim being to kill, sometimes through murder, members of the Tamil community.

Australia has sought good relations with all of its regional friends and neighbours which is a most commendable foreign policy objective. Problems arise however, when the plain talking that should form a part of friendship is not employed in the face of poor behaviour. Australia was able to castigate South Africa over the policy of apartheid, but not Indonesia over abuse of human rights in East Timor, and not Sri Lanka over the treatment of Tamils. Consequently Australia ended up supporting one side in a civil war, when it should have been neutral and even handed.

Unfortunately, although understandably, it is mostly easier for governments to conduct government to government relations than it is to try and deal with the invariably bush-based “other side” in a civil war.

That does not mean that Australia should continue to demonise Tamils. The Sri Lankan government monopolised the propaganda war that ran along with the military conflict.

Some media representatives and some elements of the Australian security community have chosen to listen to Sinhalese operative Rohan Gunaratna. Employed by the Sri Lankan government in 1984, the year in which the civil war started, Gunaratna was involved in disruption activities being run against the Tamils. It would be surprising if he were not aware of the disappearances of Tamils off the streets. Born in 1961, his CV is sparse on detail until 1987. Some sources have him working for the Sri Lankan government at least to 1994.


In 1987 Gunaratna became a student in Finland, claiming to be a recipient of an untraceable Australian-Europe Award to study American-Australia diplomatic and security co-operation: an interesting topic to undertake from Finland.

The Sinhalese, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) organisation became active once again in 1987 targeting government institutions, police and army personnel involved in counter-insurgency activities. Indeed Gunaratna has written a book about the abortive Marxist/Nationalist uprising.

Following 9-11 Gunaratna shot to prominence, with some masterly promotion, as a self proclaimed terrorism expert, which at that time there were very few.

He got into the ear of US-based think tanks, including the Rand Corporation, mainstream intelligence organisations and officials of the Bush Administration. He also got into the ear of the AFP, although ASIO remained unconvinced both with his credentials and his message.

Gunaratna has made a name for himself peddling fear; he has little understanding of the causes of terrorism. He remains close to the government of Sri Lanka.

Gunaratna has claimed that members of the LTTE are on boats destined for Australia and recently apprehended in waters around Indonesia; he also claims that some of the boats are owned by the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan government has reason to be pleased with Gunaratna’s remarks, this and his former links to that government should give the Australian government pause when dealing with or taking his advice.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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